If you have been to winter camping or cold weather camping in spring or autumn, you might have realized that without sufficient preparation to beat the cold, you cannot enjoy camping as much as in the summers.
Among many other things to keep your winter tent warm, a catalytic heater is one of them. If you haven’t used a heater in your tent before, you might wonder are catalytic heaters safe in tents?
Catalytic heaters are safe to use in tents because they don’t have an open flame and produce NO carbon monoxide. They burn propane with the help of a catalyst without any open flame hence no risk of CO poisoning. However, just like normal heaters, catalytic heaters also need good ventilation, should be kept away from flammable materials and should be turned off before sleep.
Let’s explore the topic in detail and see how catalytic heaters work, why are they safer than open flame heaters, and how to get the best out of them and make your winter camping trip fun.
How does a catalytic heater work?
Catalytic heaters were introduced several decades ago, and since then, they have been used by camping and outdoor enthusiast. They are called “catalytic” because they use a special catalyst that helps oxidize the fuel.
If you go back to your high school chemistry, you will remember that a catalyst is any substance that helps speed up a chemical reaction without getting consumed itself.
In normal electric or battery operated heaters, the fuel is oxidized (burned) at a higher temperature. This high temperature needs an open flame. But when you add a catalyst that assists the oxidation process, the reaction can take place at low enough temperature without an open flame (see the diagram below)
That’s the main working principle of catalytic heaters. They use a catalyst (mostly platinum-coated plate) to burn the fuel at a low temperature making the heater flameless, smokeless, and safer to use indoors.
The catalytic plate is preheated with electricity or a flame and then fuel is introduced. When the fuel comes in contact with the preheated plate, the chemical reaction starts releasing further heat that warms your tent.
Why are catalytic heaters better?
Compared to traditional open flame or blue flame heaters, a catalytic heater (also known as a catalytic burner) has some distinct advantages.
1- No risk of CO poisoning
Safety is a major concern when looking for a heater to heat up your tent during winter camping. However, catalytic heaters are by far the best choice as they are safe to use indoors. These heaters have no carbon monoxide (CO) emissions. So, with proper ventilation, you will not be at risk of CO poisoning. The best heaters are those which have a CSA 4.89 certification. This certification implies that the heater is producing as little CO as possible, making it extremely safe for use.
The 4.98 certifications were created by the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) International specifically for gas-powered heaters. A heater that is CSA 4.98 certified needs an Oxygen Depletion Sensor (ODS) and will automatically switch off when oxygen levels get depleted. Additionally, it also signifies that CO levels cannot be too high when the oxygen level is low.
As reported by a study conducted by the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission, the peak concentration of CO ranged from 68 to 125 ppm whereas, the steady-state concentration was observed to range between 67 to 109 ppm for a catalytic heater. If a limited time for exposure i.e., 6.5 hours is assumed at these concentrations of CO, the catalytic heater is proved to be safe for use and poses no serious threat to adults.
2- No open flame, low fire hazard
One of the main features of catalytic heaters is that they don’t have open flame as the burning process occurs at a lower temperature. This makes them ideal for use inside tents where we have flammable items around.
Although the risk of fire hazards is low, it is still a good idea to turn the heater off and keep it outside before going to sleep.
3- More efficient, lasts long
Although both catalytic and non-catalytic (open flame, ceramic, or blue flame) heaters burn propane to produce heat, the non-catalytic heaters burn inefficiently without enough oxygen to produce Carbon monoxide. Apart from the risk of CO poisoning, this also reduces efficiency.
Compared to that, a catalytic heater is very efficient even in a lower oxygen environment as the catalytic combustion makes sure no CO is formed. Based on campers’ experience, the same 16.4 oz propane cylinder will last longer on a catalytic heater than a non-catalytic, open-flame heater.
Do note that compared to open flame heaters, the same size heater will produce far less heat due to low-temperature burning. The heat might not be enough to warm your shower water but it might just be enough to make your tent cozy or prevent your drinking water from freezing in a bottle.
Catalytic heater vs blue flame heater
The following table summarizes the similarities and differences between catalytic heaters vs blue flame heaters or ceramic heaters.
|Flame Heaters||Catalytic Heaters|
|CO Poisoning||High risk of CO poisoning in a low Oxygen environment||CO is not produced even in a low oxygen environment.|
|Fire Risk||High fire risk due to open flame||Low fire risk due to no open flame and low-temperature burning.|
|Efficiency||Efficiency slightly lower in a low oxygen environment||Near 100% efficient burning|
|Fuel pressure||High pressure required||Can work with low-pressure fuel|
|Operational altitude||up to 4000 feet||up to 9000 feet|
|Cost||Very cheap||Quite expensive due to the cost of rare-earth catalyst material|
|Size (front area)||Smaller for same BTU value||Bigger for same BTU|
|Maintenance||Periodic valve cleaning||Periodic + plate valve cleaning. Has to be covered when off to avoid dust.|
Catalytic heaters best practices
Although the catalytic heaters are comparatively safer than other heating options while camping, there is still some degree of risk involved. You should never take these devices lightly as they require constant care and attention.
#1 Carefully read and follow the manufacturer’s instructions
Every device accompanies a user manual with instructions from the manufacturer as it is always better to be safe than sorry. When it comes to heaters, extra care should be taken.
Even if you are familiar with using catalytic heaters before, it is preferred to check again the product guide and look into the recommendations. Make sure you never attempt things that are proscribed by the manufacturer.
#2 Go for models with extra protection
Although catalytic heaters are safe heating options as they don’t have an open flame and almost no carbon monoxide emissions but there are some models which are equipped with additional safety features.
- A tip-over protection features shuts down the heater fuel supply when the heater tips over for any reason.
- An Oxygen Depletion Sensor (ODS) monitors the oxygen level and if the levels drop to critical, it shuts down the heater automatically to avoid asphyxiation.
#3 Keep combustibles away
Be it a heater or stove or any other device involving fuel and heat, the objects which are likely to catch fire should be kept away. When in a small tent, make sure that any combustible object such as stove fuels, paper, tent fabric should be at a decent distance from the heater.
#4 Cover the heater when not using
When the heater is not in use, you should cover the top to avoid any dust or particulates building up on the catalytic plate. Dust particles act as poison to the catalytic process, reduce efficiency and increase the risk of carbon monoxide production.
#5 Ensure there is enough ventilation in your tent
Although catalytic heaters are safe in terms of no carbon monoxide emissions but can drop the levels of oxygen (O2) in the ambient air just like any other combustion process. When placed in a closed space with poor ventilation, a catalytic heater can decrease the ambient O2 concentration. With low concentrations of O2, there is a high risk of hypoxia. The following table presents the symptoms associated with decreasing oxygen levels.
|20.9 %||Normal concentration at sea level|
|12 – 15 %||Slightly high pulse rate and disturbance in muscular coordination|
|10 – 14 %||Emotional disturbance, difficulty breathing, extreme sense of fatigue on small movement|
|6 – 10 %||Nervous system disruption may lead to loss of consciousness, nausea, dizziness|
|Less than 6||Serious respiratory discomfort may lead to complete breathing disruption and cardiac failure.|
Therefore, it is important to provide passage to the fresh outdoor air so that the level of O2 inside the tent keeps on replenishing. Keep a slight opening in your tent when the heater is running. This might go against your tent insulation best practices but it is important for your safety.
#6 Be aware of carbon monoxide poisoning symptom
In rare cases, when the catalytic plate is polluted with dust or particles, the heater can produce carbon monoxide. The symptoms are;
- Mild headache
- Nausea and vomiting
- Muscle pain
- Breathing difficulty
It is a good idea to carry a portable CO detector with you on tent or RV camping. They are pretty cheap and portable (like this one on Amazon) and can be life-saving in such situations.
Which catalytic heater is best for tent?
A few years back, Coleman used to make great catalytic heaters that were reliable and affordable. Recently, I cant seem to find them on Amazon or anywhere (Check this link to see if they are back in stock or not)
Another great brand is Camco which makes their Olympian Wave series heaters. They can be used with your RV propane tank and can be used as portable units inside your tent. They come with safety shutoff valves and are AGA & CGA approved. Following are their top-selling ones.
|Model||Heat Output||Heating Area||Where to buy?|
|Camco Olympian Wave-3||3000 BTU||100 sq. ft||Amazon|
|Camco Olympian Wave-6||6000 BTU||200 sq. ft||Amazon|
|Camco Olympian Wave-8||8000 BTU||290 sq. ft||Amazon|
If you are going to camp in sub 40 F temperature, make sure you carry your catalytic heater along as nights can get pretty cold (Read: How cold is too cold for camping?)
Catalytic Heaters – FAQs
Are Coleman catalytic heaters dangerous?
All catalytic heaters including Coleman are not dangerous and are completely safe to use indoors. Due to their catalytic burning of fuel, they don’t produce Carbon monoxide. However, they do need a fresh supply of air for Oxygen and should be used in ventilated areas.
How long will a Coleman catalytic heater last?
Coleman SportCat catalytic heater will last for 14 hours on a 16.4 oz or 1lb propane canister.
Do Coleman catalytic heaters produce carbon monoxide?
Coleman catalytic heaters produce heat by oxidizing propane fuel using a special platinum-based catalyst. That’s why they don’t produce carbon monoxide even in a low oxygen environment.
How long do catalytic heaters last?
Catalyst heaters have no moving parts. The catalyst is not used or consumed during the operation so it can last up to 10 years if used properly. The only thing that can reduce its life is dust deposits on the catalyst plate.
Can a catalytic heater start a fire?
Catalytic heaters do not produce any flame so they can not start a fire easily even when they come in contact with flammable material for a brief time. However, on rare occasions, a highly flammable material can start a fire when comes in contact with the hot plate.
How do you start a catalytic heater?
You need to preheat the catalytic plate before you can turn the propane flow over it. This can be done with an electric filament, through a piezoelectric activated flame. Every manufacturer has its own way of preheating the catalytic plate and is usually very easy.
Recommended Camping Gears: I have compiled a list of my favourite camping gear in one place. The selection is based on my own personal experience using them for many years camping as well as feedback from fellow campers. Check them out on my Recommended Camping Gears page